The Session #137: Where I try to figure out what happened to German Wheat Beers in Northern California

For this month’s Beer Blogging Session, Roger Mueller of Roger’s Beers…and Other Drinks asks us to write about German Wheat Beers in some way or another.  (Don’t know what the Beer Blogging Session is?  Then check out this.) I have to confess not knowing a lot about German Wheat Beers. The last time I was in Germany was in Munich in 2005, where I was travelling on business to the Laser Munich Trade Show, as the Germans are every bit as talented at building lasers as they are brewing beer. That was a couple years before I had any real appreciation for beer, German or otherwise.

I rarely drink German imports, but spent the last couple weeks sampling a limited selection of a few German Hefeweizens found in my local grocery store as “research” for this post. I found it interesting how each different brewery had their own small, but significant riff on the style. Other than that, I really don’t think I can say a lot about authentic German Wheat Beers. While ignorance on a subject is hardly a reason for a blogger not to write about it, I’m going to go in a slightly direction. Since plenty of Northern California brewers release Wheat Beers which they claim are brewed in the German-style, I can drink those Northern California variants and write about them.

SCVB HefeHefeweizens are hard to find around here, and sometimes are a bit underwhelming.  One I like is Alviso Mills Hefeweizen from San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). On the can, SCVB states it’s brewed in the Bavarian-style. It’s got a tingly carbonation, a dry but substantial malt heft, a little wheat tang, and noticeable banana and clove esters to round out the flavor, hitting the usual Hefeweizen notes. Nice beer.

Of course, if I’m going to talk about German Wheat beers brewed in Northern California, Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen has to be in the conversation.  Gordon Biersch Brewmaster Dan Gordon studied brewing at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany, so you have to figure he knows a thing or two about German Wheat Beer. As for Gordon’s Hefeweizen, it’s got a light pillow-like mouthfeel with a noticeable tartness from the wheat. It’s medium dry and I found the spicy clove character dominant over the banana. One of those beers that is pretty refreshing if that’s all you’re looking for, but interesting enough if you want to pay closer attention.

Dan Gordon, the Gordon of Gordon Biersch

Briney Melon GoseLet’s move to the Gose style. When Northern California brewers discovered this style a few years ago, each had their delightful play on the yin-yang balance of salt and sourness, with each brewery offering up their interpretation of the style.  But after maybe six months of that, brewers around here grew impatient and couldn’t resist the temptation to “innovate”, breaking out the guava paste or the blood orange concentrate and dumping that in the brew.  The Goses in Northern California no longer became interesting studies of balance, but tired fruit-infused Wheat Beers. A notable exception, in my opinion, is Briny Melon Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing.  I like the deep, pucking sourness matched with a light funk, a little saltiness and coriander spice, with the melon adding depth and bringing everything together.

Finally, there’s North Coast Tart Cherry Berliner Wiesse. It’s more sweet than sour, with a fizzy carbonation and the cherries just take over everything. Frankly, it tastes like a sophisticated alcopop. I get that the Berline Wiesse is usually served with sweet syrup in its homeland and this is an attempt at replicating that. Maybe this beer is true to the way a Berliner Wiesse is served in its homeland. I just don’t think it worked particularly well.NC BW

After sampling these and many other German-style Wheat Beers in Northern California, I’m struck with how poorly the German styles have translated here compared to English-styles (Stouts, Pale Ales, and of course, IPAs). Northern California brewers also seem much more comfortable looking to Belgium for inspiration. German brewing, with it’s focus on tradition and strict technique, just doesn’t seem to fit with the more freewheeling Northern California culture. It’s our loss.



The Session #91: My First Non-Belgian Belgian was not Strohs

This month’s Session is a very Belgian one from Belgian Smaak who asks us to share our experiences with our first Belgian beer.  In the free wheeling experimental and inclusive nature of Belgian beer, “the rules are that there are no rules”.  So when writing about our first Belgian beer, we don’t have to write about our first one, or even a beer actually brewed in Belgium.

That makes me highly tempted to write about the time my high school girlfriend scored a couple of stale cans of Strohs on a date, the was the first beer I ever drank.  Well, the first beer I ever drank if you don’t count a few sips of Rolling Rock my dad periodically allowed me to try from his glass. However, it just doesn’t seem right to twist that beer experience into this Session.

Instead, let me tell you about the first Belgian beer I remember drinking, Brother Thelonious from North Coast Brewing.  It was on a trip through California’s Mendocino County over seven years ago where my wife and I stopped at North Coast’s brewpub across the street from their production brewery in Fort Bragg.  I still remember my surprise at it’s intense banana fruitiness, calling it “banana beer”.  I was just discovering all the possibilities of craft beer then, and this “banana beer” was a big part of that discovery.

Revisiting a couple bottles of Brother Thelonious last week, I found it to be have plenty of fruitiness but more like prune than banana with some dark malt roastiness, and light aromatics one associates with Belgian ales. I’m not sure exactly what “banana” I was tasting with those first sips of Brother Thelonious back then with, but this beer remains a discovery.

OK, since this beer is brewed in the United States, is really isn’t a “Belgian beer”, a non-issue for our Session host, but a distinction that’s gotten Stephen Beaumont into a lather. Which raises the question: How is it that only Belgium and no other country has transferred its nationality to any American beer inspired by its brewing traditions?  An American brewed Hefeweizen is hardly considered a German beer.   At least it’s no more German than an American brewed Bitter is British, or an American Pilsner is Czech.  Does this Belgian nationality transfer phenomenon hold true in other countries besides the United States?

I realize tedious hair-splitting is what gives beer writers something to write about, but is it too much to ask ourselves why this happened rather than go around slapping peoples wrists whenever they declare something “Belgian” even when it actually isn’t from Belgium?  Well, the problem is, I really don’t know why or how the country of Belgium achieved this impressive feat of national identity transfer and nobody else seems to know either, so maybe we should go back to all the tedious hair-splitting. Except our Belgian Session host has no interest in splitting hairs, so maybe that should tell us something.

Very well.   My first Belgian beer I remember that was actually from Belgium was none other than Chimay Grande Reserve Blue paired with bread pudding at a beer and dessert pairing a couple years later after that trip to Mendocino County.  Beer and dessert pairings seemed a little novel way back in 2009, and once again as I further discovered beer’s many possibilities, a Belgian beer was a big part of that.

Beer of the Month: Le Merle Saison from North Coast Brewing

I don’t know about you but I’m not quite ready to give up the holidays.  That’s why Le Merle Saison of North Coast Brewing is Beer of the Month for January.  Looks like champagne in the glass, doesn’t it?  Well, a little bit.

I was given a bottle of this as a Christmas gift. After unwrapping it and thanking my friend who gave it to me, I thought to myself “Haven’t I had this a bunch of times already”.   Except for the fact that that I couldn’t remember the last time I had Le Merle, or what it tasted like.

Living in the Bay Area, Le Merle seems ubiquitous sitting on the shelves at all the speciality grocery stores, BevMos!, and better liquor stores and bottle shops.  And so seeing it so often when buying beer created this odd familiarity, where the beer was some sort of friendly acquaintence in the beer aisle that I really didn’t know.

It was time to change that.  And getting to know this beer was more difficult than I expected.  The taste is difficult to define.  There’s this light earthy yeasty background, with a bunch of crisp light fruit flavors mingling in the foreground sort.  Is it pear, pineapple, lemon?  I can’t really tell for sure.  It’s very dry, with no sweetness at all. 

Which is what I really like about Le Merle, it’s unique and hard to define while avoiding to taste cluttered and muddled, always the sign of a great beer.  Besides, if I wanted well defined fruit flavors in my drink, I’d just go down to Jamba Juice, order a smoothie, and pour vodka in it.

It’s lightly earthy, yet crisp.  Clean yet complex.  A beer that could pass for sparkling wine if you aren’t paying too close attention. A contradiction of flavors, a last gasp of the holidays, and Beer of the Month.

The Session #59: When I Don’t Drink Beer, I Prefer the Wines of Anderson Valley

Inspired by a Dos Equis commercial, Mario Rubio of Brewed for Thought  asks us to write about what we prefer to drink when not having beer,  for this month’s Session.  As the world’s 2,643,459,882 most interesting man, here’s what I have to say.

If I had to put a date on my so-called “craft beer epiphany”, it would be Memorial Day Weekend 2007.  That weekend I took a trip with Linda, my girlfriend of about a year, to California’s Mendocino County where we visited both Anderson Valley Brewing and North Coast Brewing.  While I was already leaning in a craft beer direction, these visits not only opened my mind to realize the endless variety and possibilities of beer, but also made me aware of how connected beer can be to the place where it is brewed.

For the first time in my life, I went wine tasting as we also visited a few of Anderson Valley’s wineries in central Mendocino County.   I discovered many of the different varietals and nuances of wine, and while recognizing that although wine is a rather one-dimensional beverage compared to beer, it can still be tasty.

And most importantly, after an effortlessly enjoyable weekend with Linda, I realized we had something pretty special going on, and today, Linda and I have been married for over a year. 

You might say I hit the epiphany trifecta big time that weekend

What can I say about the wines of Anderson Valley beyond the warm fuzziness of that weekend?  The area is known for luscious Pinot Noirs, my favorite varietal.   But the best part of Anderson Valley wine country is how genuine the people are at the various wineries you meet.  Linda and I have done the Napa Valley thing, which is basically like going to a  foodie amusement park.  In smaller, more isolated Anderson Valley, you’re more likely to meet the wine maker or at least someone highly involved in the operations of the winery in the tasting room than most of California’s other wine regions.  The wine is every bit as good as you’ll find in Napa, and costs about $15 less per bottle.

But the best thing about this wine growing region is once you’re done wine tasting, you can drive just a few miles south and take the Anderson Valley Brewery tour.

Returning to the source at Anderson Valley Brewing

If you want to officially date my craft beer epiphany, it happened over three years ago Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, CA. Linda and I took drove in from nearby Ukiah in hopes we could take the brewery tour. Unfortunately on that week day, we were told the person who normally does the tours “wasn’t in”, so there were no tours that day. We went into the warehouse-like tasting room and enjoyed a sampler of their many fine beers. I’d enjoyed plenty of craft beers and samplers at brewpubs prior to that, but for some reason, simply drank them didn’t pay all that much attention. Things like IPA’s, Ambers, Belgian Doubles and Triples were foreign concepts to me, but for some reason, at that place and time, I started really paying attention and realizing what I’ve been missing. The next day, Linda and I drove up to Fort Bragg to visit North Coast Brewing and we’ve continued down the road of craft beer discovery ever since.

Having come back to Boonville over three years later, I kept calling Anderson Valley, making doubly and triply sure there I wouldn’t miss the tour again. And sure enough there was a tour we when arrived, and I finally got to get inside. Unfortunately, Linda was wearing open toed sandals, and so was not allowed on the tour, since a brewery is a working factory which has strict rules on things like that.

The current brewery is actually only ten years old, with the old copper brewing kettles obtained from a Germany brewery that went out of business. There’s a big, impressive control panel full of dials and knobs, but they’re just for show. An Allen-Bradley touch-screen mounted into the control panel is actually used to operate the brew kettles. And finally, going onto the roof of the brewery and seeing the actually Anderson Valley landscape used on Anderson Valley’s beer label right before my very eyes was a surprising moment that made me utter a quiet “Wow!”.

So I leave you with a few sights from the place that’s started it all for me with craft beer.